When Fidel Castro went tobogganing

News of the death of Fidel Castro has reminded me of a curious story I came across whilst carrying research for the GLOBAL-RURAL project in Newfoundland, Canada, this last summer. It was the early-1970s, and the frostiness of the Cold War was equalled only by the bitterness of the Canadian winter. One anomaly in the geopolitical map, however, was Gander Airport in Newfoundland, where flights between Cuba and the Soviet Union would stop for re-fuelling. So it was on Christmas Eve 1972 Fidel Castro found himself transiting through the small Canadian town and perhaps entranced by the winter wonderland outside (some say it was the first time he had seen snow), set off with his bodyguards to go tobogganing on the gentle slope beneath Hotel Gander, watched by bemused locals.


Fidel Castro in Gander, Christmas 1972 (Photograph from North Atlantic Aviation Museum, photographer: Ian Blackmore)

It was stories of unexpected cosmopolitan encounters such as this that drew me to Gander as a case study for GLOBAL-RURAL research. In little more than a decade during the middle of the last century, Gander was catapulted from wilderness to the lynchpin of the global aviation system, the so-called “crossroads of the world”, before receding back into obscurity as the jets started passing overhead. Possibly no where else so neatly illustrates the potential of technology to thrust rural backwaters into the global limelight, and its same brutal potential to cut ties and isolate communities, revealing globalization as a non-linear process.

Gander is still not the easiest place to get to. It’s a four-hour drive from the Newfoundland capital, St John’s, along the vulnerable thread of the Trans-Canada Highway, which curls through the Terra Nova National Park as the only road to cross the island. Back in the 1930s, the future site of the airport and town was even more remote: nothing more than pristine forest alongside a lake and the Newfoundland Railroad. Nonetheless it attracted the attention of pioneers of trans-Atlantic aviation, looking for a staging post on the ‘great circle’ route from Europe to the eastern seaboard of the United States. A seaplane port was already operating nearby in Botwood bay, and it was the lake that first interested the engineers with the possibility for a combined water and land airport. Before the airport could open, though, the Second World War intervened and the airfield was requisitioned by the military, serving a crucial link in the Atlantic Ferry Command that transported new aircraft from North America to Britain, helping to ensure allied victory in the European air war.


(Photograph from Centre for Newfoundland Studies collection, Memorial University)

At the end of the war, Gander was a fully-functioning airfield ready to be re-purposed for commercial flights, which could not at the time cross the Atlantic economically without re-fuelling. American Overseas Airlines initiated the first scheduled flights in October 1945, quickly followed by Pam-Am, TWA, Trans-Canadian Airlines, KLM, BOAC, SAS, Air France and Sabena. By 1947, the airport welcomed over 9,200 flights and over 284,000 passengers, as Gander formed the gateway between North America and the rest of the world, as captured in a December 1948 article in Canadian Aviation magazine:

In a calm voice an announcer says, ‘Plane leaving for Moncton’. Then a moment later, ‘Plane leaving for Shannon, Paris, Rome, Athens, Damascus and Karachi’. Then ‘Plan leaving for Boston’, is followed by ‘Plane leaving for Prestwick, Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm’, or ‘Trans-World Airlines flight to Cairo’, or ‘American Overseas Airlines flight to Frankfurt and Berlin. (‘The Green Light in Newfoundland’, Canadian Aviation, December 1948, page 19)

For the disembarking passengers, the stop in Gander could be disorienting. In language that prefigured sociologist Marc Auge’s later thesis of airports as ‘non-places’, a feature in the Saturday Evening Post  in 1950 opined that “for the passenger, Gander is a Nothing, located in a Nowhere; a breakfast between two sleeps”. Even time, it seemed, could be confusing:

The clock in the Gander lobby is masked with paper. Newfoundland has its own time. It runs on the off-beat an hour and a half ahead of New York, three and a half hours behind Europe. So a clock would only confuse the passengers and make them ask questions. (‘Whistle Stop, North Atlantic’, Saturday Evening Post, 16 December 1950, page 18)

To service the airport, a cosmopolitan community sprung up, housed at first in the old air force base, with airlines stationing their own staff. National teams competed in a local soccer league, and the Lions Club boasted members from ten countries. Working alongside were Newfoundlanders lured from rural towns and outports by the good pay and modern lifestyle:

Gander offers them everything they haven’t had. Company to break the terrible inbred isolation. Real money and a choice of things to spend it on. Fresh vegetables, at least once in a while. (‘Whistle Stop, North Atlantic’, Saturday Evening Post, 16 December 1950, page 19)

Within a few years the community had outgrown the reconditioned barracks and was relocated to a brand new town site a few miles west. However, with no external road connection until 1962, the town of Gander remained economically and socially focused on the airport. Security was relaxed (the absence of a perimeter fence meant that moose on the runway was a constant hazard), and passengers and local residents mingled. In the early days, passengers waiting out bad weather might be found drinking or playing cards with locals in the airbase hostels; the later the terminal and its 24-hour bar became the place to be, and especially to see who was passing through. Stories abound of Frank Sinatra being told to wait his turn at the bar, and of the young woman on the duty-free checkout discussing the theory of relativity with Albert Einstein. Newspapers would excitedly report sightings of Hollywood starlets, and a lonely framed collage on the terminal wall still commemorates some of the transiting celebrities: Maureen O’Hara, Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, Bob Hope, Roy Rogers, Neil Armstrong, Clint Eastwood, Roger Moore, Colonel Sanders, and others.


The glamour of global connectivity was not to last. New technology, the shifting economics of air travel, and the Canadian Government’s removal of Gander’s ‘fifth freedom’ rights – which had allowed foreign carriers to board passengers at Gander to flights between the US and Europe – all conspired to make it neither necessary nor desirable for airlines to break trans-Atlantic flights at Gander. As jumbo jets passed overhead, the airport cut landing fees and introduced other incentives to attract new business. And that is where the Cubans came in.

Flights to and from Cuba were prohibited from landing in the United States, which presented a problem for long-haul services between Havana and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Gander provided the answer, and during the 1970s and 1980s Soviet airline Aeroflot, Cuban carrier Cubana, and the East German Interflug became Gander’s major customers. For some on these flights, the stop at Gander took on a new significance: as a favoured place to defect. In 1979, 16 transiting passengers claimed asylum at Gander, increasing to 96 in 1984. Defectors were initially given temporary accommodation in the town, such that during the 1980s Gander residents became used to “the sight of Cubans walking with shopping bags, Iranians getting up a basketball game on the public courts” (‘Layover to Freedom’, Globe Magazine, 29 September 1985, page 40). As the Soviet bloc collapsed at the end of the 1980s, however, the trickle of defections became a rush, peaking with 2,600 defections at Gander airport in 1991. In response, the Canadian Government imposed new regulations, requiring Eastern bloc citizens to hold a Canadian visa just to leave the aircraft whilst re-fuelling. By mid 1993, Aeroflot had pulled its 750 flights-a-year from Gander.


Today, Gander airport has the feel of an over-sized piece of clothing. The International Lounge is rarely used, but sits enclosed by glass viewing galleries as a memorial to a lost time. The sixties-style black furniture and geometric flooring in shades of brown wait for ghostly patrons. On one wall clocks show the time in New York, London and Moscow, on opposite wall is pinned a map of world. The one sign of recent activity is a lone banner reading ‘Gander International Airport: Celebrating 75 Years, 1938-2013’. The airport now makes its money from servicing private and corporate jets and re-fuelling military aircraft, with the Saudi Arabian Air Force among the largest users, en route to training exercises in the United States. But such activities take place away from public view, and the international reach of the airport no longer impinges on the everyday life of the town in the way that it once did. Only occasionally do events bring the two together, as on 11 September 2001 when 38 airplanes with over 6,500 passengers were directed to land at Gander following the closure of US airspace. The stranded travellers that made Gander a makeshift home for the next few days spanned a spectrum redolent of its jet-setting heyday: a four-star general, a fashion company boss, off-duty marines, the mayor of Frankfurt, holidaymakers, businesspeople and migrants from diverse nationalities.

Back in the 1980s when Air Canada started to relocate its international flights from Gander to St John’s, the town council prophesised catastrophe for the local economy. Yet, thirty years on the town is thriving. It has become a regional service centre for the dispersed population of northern central Newfoundland, with government offices, college campuses, a hospital and shopping malls. At a time when the prevailing discourse is of rural towns becoming increased entangled in global networks and detached from their locality, Gander has gone the other way: a town that was created by globalization becoming more embedded in its regional economy. The airport now directly employs fewer than a fifth of the town’s workforce, but it has not been totally eclipsed. Symbolically, at least, it still looms large. The practice of naming the town’s streets after aviators and airplanes continues, with a new sub-division scheduled to include Cessna Street and Bader Place; and around the town, in the airport and the aviation museum and elsewhere, are the mementos and photographs that capture the time when Gander was the ‘Crossroads of the World’ and the people that inter-continental air travel brought to this remote corner of rural Newfoundland: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Yuri Gagarin, and, one snowy Christmas Eve, Fidel Castro.


(A short note on sources: This narrative is constructed from documents and press cuttings held by the Centre for Newfoundland Studies at Memorial University Newfoundland and the Newfoundland archives at The Rooms, information on display at the North Atlantic Aviation Museum in Gander and at Gander Airport, and interviews with various people in Gander. The details about 9/11 are taken from The Day the World Came to Town by Jim DeFede (Harper Collins, 2002)).

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